This Is Not A Final Statement by Miriam Sagan

This Is Not A Final Statement

I cut red paper. Then, open the envelope full of bills and accounts preserved from 1975. My father records and saves all the hospital bills of my near death and extensive hospitalization. I have the flu, pleurisy, a collapsed lung, empyema.
He writes down taxi fares: $30.00. Tolls: $3.00. Is this how he is making sense of the situation in which his eldest child is dying?
I add black ink. I’m not trained in the spontaneous gestural way of sumi. But I can slash.
I cut up the hospital bills, the endless listing of X-rays. My father’s absurd ledger.
No doubt this is because—since I will live and not die—he will take me as a tax deduction. I am 21 years old and without health insurance.
Decades later, my therapist has evinced surprise. “ A Jewish family? Middle class? No health insurance? What were they thinking?” Apparently that I was grown up and gone. But I was only the latter. I was gone, but soon I was almost…totally gone. Preserved in the black and white snapshot like someone headed for the Mekong or an overdose. Gone. And not remembered as any sort of real person.
And my father kept everything. In a manila envelope that comes to me after his death, found by my sister going through the file cabinets.
I try adding words to the collages but they don’t really work. “You’re ambivalent about your handwriting,” my daughter says as we work together on adjacent studio tables.
My handwriting.
My scar.
My body.
The fact that I’m alive at all.

What I Learned from My Dad About Artistic Endeavors by Miriam Sagan

When I was a young girl, my father had an unusual hobby. He ran a chamber music series in northern New Jersey. This was the early and mid 1960’s. Super stars of the times included the Julliard String Quartet and The Budapest String quartet. I didn’t care about classical music any more than the average ten year old—which is to say, very little. But my father always brought me along as a helper, which I loved.
My dad did something that apparently most organizers did not—he brought a big wicker hamper full of snacks and coffee for the musicians. There were cookies from a Jewish bakery in Manhattan. World famous violinists and cellists fell on this modest repast with the wild enthusiasm of actually starving artists. They heaped thanks on my father. And they shook my hand and praised the fact of my mere appearance at the concert. Their manners were charming and European.
I loved everything until the music started, and then I just got sleepy and drifted along in my seat. My dad was so happy and excited afterwards, and I woke up in the chill night air as I helped pack up and he drove us home.
I learned an enormous amount about entrepreneurship and the arts—all of it unconsciously—from my dad Eli.

1. If what you love and support doesn’t exist—create it. My dad loved modern atonal compositions. His audience—not so much. He always programed the more controversial pieces second out of three, so the audience couldn’t leave before it.

2. Throw everything you have at art. My dad had money, taste, opinions, connections, and personal charisma. He was also wildly appreciative. He didn’t hesitate to put all this into his series.

3. Give it away. My dad did not take tickets, although most of the audience members were subscribers. He used to say, “if someone wants to sneak into a chamber music concert, let them.”

4. Bring the kids.My dad could have left me home with my younger siblings. He didn’t really need me there, although he appreciated my loading and unloading. Somehow he had a program—if a vague one—to expose me to the arts in an intimate way.

4. Serve snacks.


Anniversary of My Father’s Death

The week of my father’s yarzeit, anniversary of his death.

The passage of time has not revealed who he was to me.

I can list 5 things he liked:

cream filled doughnuts
the Hudson River
being right
Ancient Greece

and 5 things he didn’t:

carpenter bees
Valentine’s Day
crossing a border

In the last years of his life, he was diminished by age, dementia, a stroke, aphasia.

I can’t discount those years and just remember him young.

I wanted his approval—and both got it and didn’t—until the need itself wore out.

He was the only father I’ll ever have. Basically, that is the truth of the situation that remains.

The haiku poet Issa wrote:

Mountains seen also
by my father, like this,
In his winter confinement. (Translation by R.H. Blythe)

The haiku seems to be saying we can’t actually know another person, but maybe just experience together.

mist hangs over
snow mountains my father
never saw

walking stick in snow
how vigorous my father
was at my age

old man
stroked, afraid
of the spring breeze

juncos in snow
he liked them too—
my father

Incognito: A snapshot of looking for my father

When he was home, my father often said he was “incognito.” I thought this was an actual place, called Cognito. Perhaps it was, as it meant he was in his study with the door closed. If he emerged briefly, he refused to answer if spoken to. He was not to be disturbed, and never was.
     From this remove, I have the urge to diagnose. Sensitivity? Hypoglycemia? Asperger’s? Whatever it was, my father believed that his preferences and reactions were right, the morally correct course. A hatred of small talk was not just his quirk, or a personal preference. It was an elevated position, one that any superior person would automatically take. I, who even now enjoy a chat about the weather, fruit trees, real estate, gossip, and clothes, had to rally my childish resources to discuss the ancient Greeks.

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